Craig Thompson’s newest graphic novel, Habibi, is one with very few peers. For its sustained aesthetic splendor and dazzling narrative, it is a landmark in the genre. Yet some critics focus their attention on Thompson’s use of Orientalist tropes and miss the point entirely: the tale’s caricatures are not in service to a colonial narrative or to extending racist stereotypes of the Muslim world but rather to a tale of transcendental love and mystical longing. The long and winding tale of Dodola, a young woman adrift amid a sea of sex and violence, and Zam, a boy constantly escaping slavery of body and mind, is set in a mythical Middle East. Lazy readers, or those looking for an ideological battle, have accused it of New Ageism, which is strange given the learned nature of the novel’s religiosity.
Thompson’s tome takes us on a journey that is palpably Biblical in its epic poetics. But the content, as well as the layout of the book, owes more to the Qur’an than the canonical books of Christianity. The story begins with a mystical invocation: “From the Divine Pen fell the first drop of ink. And from a drop, a river.” A succession of wordless panels follows with devastating images of barren land, the sun, a young Dodola and her glance upwards. Already in the first pages we see a complex pattern begin to develop. Each of the nine chapters relate to the nine squares (corresponding to nine letters) within the magic square of Islamic tradition: “In the magic squares, the letters are not arranged in numerical order. Yet each square encompasses a point, and when they are connected in increasing value, a design of perfect rotational symmetry emerges.” Thompson’s approach to the mystery of growing up in a land where water is as precious as gold (not unlike, it must be said, our own world) takes it its cue primarily from 1001 Nights, with its meandering stories within stories. It is a text made of several pieces finely knitted together with the skill of an artist whose talents are just approaching their zenith.
Thompson reaches for a lot here and gets away with most of it, because he so thoughtfully renders the world he imagines and the characters he peoples it with. Even though it eludes specific historical and geographical connections, Habibi is rife with the sufferings of Zam and Dodola so full and elastic in their emotional lives that they are felt as deeply as anyone of flesh and blood. And even though the more fully rounded characters, like the fisherman, uncomfortably rub up against the caricatures of the harem, Thompson manages no small feat by humanizing otherwise dejected members of society. The elegance of his creation is on display in every page—a sexual awakening buried in a tree; darkness that engulfs the dispossessed; angels descending from the sky to take the Prophet’s heart and remind us the preciousness of wisdom; a whole chapter bereft of images and full of words on guilt and forgiveness. Though Charles Hatfield, writing in The Comics Journal, takes issue with the work’s ambivalences:
The fantasy Arabia that gives Habibi its setting is the heart of the problem, I think. This setting, which, Thompson’s research notwithstanding, is a generic rather than historic one, is the very warrant of his story, the ground without which he could not invent so freely or range so widely—but, still, the book implicitly makes claims on our knowledge of the real world, of Islam, Islamophobia, East-West relations post-9/11, environmental racism, and the ecological traumas and challenges of our time. The book bids for relevance in specific ways, some allegorical, many overt, and that makes its reckless deployment of the Oriental tale—what Thompson himself has identified, accurately, as a genre—seem like an essential dodge. We can’t quite critique the setting because, as Tom points out, the book freely explores and riffs on several disparate cultures, the result being a synthetic storybook version of Islamic empire in some (despite the skyscrapers) premodern age. This seriously complicates both the book’s virtues and its attempts at social and political relevance.
The mixture of fantasy and realism shouldn’t be the problem—similar charges could be leveled against masterworks by Jorges Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez whose works challenge us by their very refusal to be logical or always ethically coherent. (Given the fact that it’s a work of fiction, its political relevance is pretty slim. If you’re looking for a cogent account of Arabian politics, please don’t read fiction. Look instead to Sacco, Said, Chomsky and Finkelstein, for starters.) The book’s joys and heartaches rest in the interiority of human imagination so restlessly mined here in page after page of glorious, inky fables—the natural and fantastical are organically meshed. Supple lines give way to stark undercurrents. Dodola and Zam’s love awakens with the melancholic force of a D.H. Lawrence novel, recalling Women In Love’s adage that “those who die, and dying still can love, still believe, do not die. They live still in the beloved.” Dodola and Zam think each other lost, but continue on in the hope of that love that binds them—at every turn the ardor is divine, a grace. An image of rain is replaced by the calligraphic rendering of a poem by Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab as the narrator notes, “Zam was soothed by stories.” The text overflows with such sublime drawings, as they continually remind us of the sensual and sacred love the two share.
Thematically, the book is just as complex: environmental disaster, sexual repression, emotional and physical loss, imperial overreaching, and familial longing are all ingrained in the narrative. All of these flow through the harem—the admittedly problematic heart of the book—where Dodola is sequestered by a vicious, sex-obsessed sultan. Erotic longing and guilt over Zam, which Zam himself, cut-off from her as he is, also suffers, pushes Dodola to the brink of physical excess. The sultan will grant her freedom if and only if, she can sexually satisfy him for 70 nights in a row, or it’s off with her head. As many commentators note, Thompson is playing with fire here. In a Comics Journal roundtable, many of the critics take issue with the sexual abuses that are visited upon Dodola, which is fair, given the predominance the sexual exploitation of women in our culture. But Dodola is not eviscerating again and again for cheap pleasure; she is treated harshly, because men, in general, treat women brutally. It is a disconcerting truth, but a truth nonetheless and one that is not without some saving graces. For some critics, it’s the fact that the men are caricatured Arabic men that rankles so much, as Nadim Damluji argues:
What Thompson makes repeatedly explicit throughout Habibi is implicit in the classic Orientalist painting “The Slave Market” by Jean-Leon Gerome pictured earlier. In that painting, as with many more from the same era, the savagery of Orientals is imagined by European artists and portrayed for European audiences. What is reflected in these paintings is the White Man’s Burden: the felt need among those in the West to save Arab women from Arab men. By imitating the style of French Orientalist paintings as a vessel for his story, Thompson also transfers the message those paintings are loaded with. It is the same White Man’s Burden that drives readers to register Dodola as a damsel in distress (a position she inhabits for the majority of the book). She needs saving from the savage Arab men that over-populate the book.
Except in Thompson’s work, there is no Great White Hope, not even implicitly. True, the story takes place in a Arabic world full of people exploiting one another viciously, but that is the truth of the text’s capitalist world (as well as ours), and it’s actually quite brave that Thompson does not shirk from this, does not offer us the easy, the gentle. That would be offensive. Habibi is a complicated book full of harsh revelations as well as beautiful fairy tales—it’s this constant tension which makes the story so compelling.
It is a grand and exhausting book. It brings to life the skeletons we wish we could keep buried. It engenders baffling criticism and baffled praise. While Robyn Creswell in the New York Times sees in Habibi “New Ageism, […] flexible physics, spiritual syncretism and self-help psychology,” Zadie Smith, writing in Harper’s, finds “remarkable feat[s] of research, care, and black ink, and a reminder that all ‘People of the book,’ despite the division of their individual traditions, share a mosaic of stories.” Creswell very well could be right, but I’m willing to bet that it’s Smith, understanding the book’s tenderness (despite its flaws), who’s correct: the book is a daring, troubling work of wonder.